Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a ruby team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.
Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses the ability to invite us the viewer to identify with his protagonists’ disarray, be it Max (Jeff Bridges) in Fearless or Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) in Year of Living Dangerously. Weir avoids restricting himself to literal definitions or rigid interpretations of the world and our place in it, and he is willing to entertain the merging of dreams, reality, and perceptions of time. He sets his characters loose in vivid landscapes of heightened awareness and texture, from the untouched beauty of the natural world to the dense metropolis. There’s a sense in his films of the limitations of knowledge and experience, of the untapped vastness beyond the ken of any one individual.
In Fearless he addresses these big ideas more directly than before, and so lays himself more open to falling short of his targets. His next picture, The Truman Show, also sets out its store overtly (this might be one of the reasons I found it a little disappointing, although in fairness I probably need to revisit it), but Fearless manages the rare feat of tackling its subject matter head-on – from its on-the-nose title down – and being provocative. This may be because it still leaves enough unsaid, so the viewer it continues to resonate within the heart and mind long after the end credits are over. It’s rarely the dialogue in Weir’s films that remains with the viewer; it’s the images and the emotions they carry.
Rafael Yglesias adapted his own novel for Weir, itself based on the 1989 crash of Unite Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago (in particular, it has been suggested that survivor Jerry Schemmel was the loose inspiration for the character of Max Klein). Yglesias has since adapted others’ works to mixed results, ranging from the positive (Death and the Maiden) to the less demonstrably so (From Hell, Dark Water). He makes a number of astute narrative choices that prevent the story from becoming over-linear. In part this comes from remaining with the inscrutable point of view of Max, and Weir expresses this through utilising different film speeds, lighting effects, and editing techniques. More fundamentally Ygelsias incorporates a mystery element, parts of which are never fully answered. We open on the devastation following the crash, as Max, carrying a baby and leading a small boy, emerges from a tall field of corn. When we are shown the devastation from overhead the effect is not dissimilar to that of a horror movie; Weir invokes unsettling strings and disorientating perspectives (whistling in ears and slow motion emphasising the shell shock of the victims).
Following this we periodically return to the flight, but only in glimpses. It isn’t until the last five minutes that we see the crash itself, rendered in a dream-like, ethereal manner; there is a haunting beauty and peace amid the horror and destruction, mostly because Weir chooses Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) as an accompaniment. Through eliminating the sounds of terror and hysteria expected of such a disaster, the director conjures an entirely different perspective. This is appropriate, as it is Max’s subjective experience of the crash we are seeing; his peace comes from the certain knowledge of imminent death (“Everything’s wonderful”) and he can express that deep calm and quietude to others (“Walk towards the light”).
This is the big reveal, if you like; the solution to the puzzle of what happened to affect Max so. And yet, Weir also avoids spoon-feeding us complete answers. Max’s uncertainty over whether he is alive or dead, aside from his comments at various points (notably in the hotel room he heads for as soon as he leaves the crash site; “You’re not dead”), does not quantify his state of mind because it is unquantifiable. Weir also infuses the flashback with symbolism, further removing it from the literal realm. We see the interior of the craft as an empty shell, a corridor to the (after) life outside, making Max either the “Good Samaritan” who leads passengers to safety or a self-appointed guardian angel (as Carla refers to him) ushering them heavenwards.
Alison: Wait a minute, aren’t you allergic to strawberries?
This ambiguity persists throughout, and this can only be intentional. Max knows he has experienced something life-changing but also that this event is almost entirely inexplicable; to himself, let alone to others. He lives life as in a waking dream, a form of intermediate, personalised, purgatory. Max is neither in the afterlife nor quite on solid Earth. So his demonstrable acts, those that prod him into a consciousness that he is not dead, dare the universe to prove him wrong. As his exasperated wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) grasps, Max must push himself back to the mortal edge, jump off a building every day, to lose his fear. Initially his ecstasy seems wholly positive, as he puts his head out of window of his rental car, heading down a desert road, to the sound of The Gypsy Kings’ Sin Ella. And his first of several brushes with strawberries, a confirmation that he is in some kind of other state or realm, whether or not he is still material, is further validation; he is allergic to them, so he should die. They are (providing an overtly Biblical analogy) “Forbidden fruit”.
But later, it appears to be the stresses and strains of the world, the fear of mortal living and mundane pettiness, that push him over the brink and into harm’s way. First when he encounters a parade of reporters outside his house, and the panic (marvellously shot by Weir, Max’s world slows down momentarily as he is overcome by their sensory assault) causes him to take flight. He runs through the city streets, the camera jump-cutting ever more tightly on his features, until, to prove his indomitability, he walks across a road awash with speeding vehicles unperturbed (and Weir’s tell-tale light from heaven appears to lead the way just before he “jumps”). Safely on the other side, Max shouts ecstatically to the God he does not believe in, a challenge of sorts (“You can’t do it! You want to kill me but you can’t!”). This in itself captures the mixed readings that can be taken from his state. The best Max can come up with is “I thought I was dead” but when he professes to Carla that they are ghosts, even though he knows they are alive, on some level it is clear he actually thinks they are in another realm, despite his lucidity with regard to logic and qualification of such statements as “You’re safe because we died already”.
Max’s behaviour is expressed as that of an addict, who needs another fix of life when he can feel the effects of his previous rush wearing off and the old wasting canker reasserts itself. His new persona has a distinctive moral code, one that bypasses traditional mores; he won’t lie (and the suggestion that he should sends him into a rooftop spin) yet he’s willing to entertain the thought of an illicit affair, and displays an honesty (or what he believes is honesty) that is borderline cruel when discussing Carla and his passé marriage with his wife. There is also an air of self-affirmation in his repeated statements that he is not afraid; through Max’s voicing of the sentiment we know it is not as true as he wants it to be. It’s a crutch that props up his new view of himself.
When Max first arrives home, he’s like an alien (a Starman?) in his own house. He needs to fully engage with his experience and those around him, from those drawn in the broadest terms (his lawyer, his psychiatrist), to those closest (his wife, his son) immediately undermine or limit him; he is besieged by their demands. His encounter is pigeonholed by his shrink and seen purely as moneymaking machine by his lawyer; in both cases the response is restrictively rationalist and defined. But Max knows better. Fearless makes no attempt to be some kind of text on post-traumatic stress disorder, even though it goes into the methodology of dealing with survivor experiences. Weir doesn’t want to be limited by a didactic characterisation, and it’s clear from the picture’s most discussed element – the strawberry allergy – that it’s a jumping off point for a meditation on mortality and life experiences. What it means to be living. If we undergo a profound and changing event, should we reject that insight or awareness or understanding in order to preserve the status quo? Should we revert to society’s expectation of normality, even if we subjectively know something different to be “true”? Should we do our best to return to a “reality” that encourages a sleepful state, a lack of awareness? There’s a relevant question here about our capacity to be sucked into mundanity, deceit and social order; are we living on remote control?
Max’s inability to fully comprehend what has happened to him doesn’t invalidate his experience or make it illusory. One might argue Fearless doesn’t allow for seeing this experience as genuinely positive, but I don’t think that’s the case. His insight is insufficiently developed; he has not suddenly become enlightened. He grasps an aspect of life and death, but his interpretation of his own survival is mistaken and that part has negative consequences. It isn’t that Max has to choose one or the other, to reject all that he has perceived, it’s that he has to accept that what he is experiencing isn’t wholly positive, it’s an attractive state, but it involves self-deception that causes others suffer. The crux is Max must eventually leave purgatory, because he is neither one thing nor the other – a ghost between worlds.
Max: People don’t so much believe in God as they choose not to believe in nothing. If life and death, they just happen, there’s no reason to do anything.
Max pronounces himself an atheist, which gives a twist on the classic view of the light at the end of the tunnel as an affirmation of a benign afterlife. For him, there’s peacefulness in the mere fact of ceasing to be. The picture doesn’t delve into a meditation on whether his beliefs are right or wrong, but there’s an essential conflict in the symbolism used by Weir and the views Max espouses. As a result, viewers are invited to reach their own conclusions based on individual preferences. In the novel, the strawberry is explained for those who require literal scientific answers; those who have NDEs (near-death experiences) may experience an awakening of previously dormant receptors, which could include allergy centres. But it’s clearly intentional on Weir’s part to play with classically metaphysical ideas and imagery in this regard. The strawberry symbolises that Max has passed on; having emerged from a crash site, he is now caught between planes (on a rung of Jacob’s Ladder?) While he can eat strawberries without ill effects it proves he is not the man he was; his feeling that he is dead, or is a ghost, is validated and still has resonance. Where there is doubt is that we are not invited to identify with any belief, unless it fits our own design. Max doesn’t ultimately affirm anything (or reject his atheism) as much as he reintegrates himself with physical, earthly meaning. One might argue that is the proof of the divine (Carla’s comment on love) but if so it is closer to a humanist perspective.
Roman Catholic girl Carla (Rosie Perez, in a particularly shrill performance) is stricken with guilt over her lost son. A point is made of rejecting Turturro’s reductive logic, whereby he sees her religiosity as preventing her from moving beyond her grief and self-blame; Non-believer Max expressly rejects Perlman’s take (“I’m filled with guilt and shame. How is that ‘old world’?”) What Perlman lacks, and Max is too remote to embrace, is empathy, which is where Carla’s strength lies (this is also displayed by Laura). We aren’t supposed to take Max’s rejection of God (based on a very emotional response to the death of his father, rather than the application of scrupulous reasoning) as gospel; Perez’ reaction to his non-belief is positioned to fundamentally undermine his ethos and points out something Max has omitted from his new dawn; “There’s no reason to love”. Logically, this follows, and it’s the flaw in Max’s reasoning that surely few would embrace, whether they are espousing or rejecting spiritual belief.
When Max returns to home becomes clear that he isn’t an island. He just likes to think he is. He adopts the posture of brutal honesty with those around him, most harshly with his wife Laura; this is the clearest sign that his own psyche is scarred, as he cannot countenance giving anything to a relationship of 16 years standing. Instead he transfers his need for human contact to Carla without even realising it; while he does “save her”, ultimately, she saves him through displaying a level of understanding he lacks. Her encounter with his wife, and realisation through her of where he has gone awry, guides Max back to Laura. When Carla tells him she cannot see him anymore, it initiates his awakening, because it forces him to recognise that, far from being freed up, he has boxed himself in. Previously, the picture has flirted with Christ imagery; the cut in Max’s side, even the poster (and the hand-touching on the flight), but I’d argue this is designed as a contrast, to highlight what he isn’t rather than to suggest what he is. Max doesn’t see himself as a saviour, but he does see himself as untouchable and apart much in the manner of one who has been touched by God or made a prophet.
Max: This is it. This is the moment of my death.
So ultimately, it’s the acceptance of his mortality (“There’s no God but there’s you?”), that he can share “the touch and the taste and the beauty of life” with the woman he has consciously excluded, that brings him back. Earlier, he has rejected her advances towards inclusion in his state of awareness, presenting both the idea that it is the best thing that ever happened to him and the opinion that he is glad she wasn’t on the plane (so she could share his experience); “You’re right I don’t make sense and I don’t want to”. And we have seen her discovery of his papers and sketches of drawing of spirals of light, the attraction towards the heavens (The Ascent into the Empyrean by Hieronymus Bosch); it’s his solitary, lonely pursuit. But his third encounter with strawberries in the movie is prefigured by his explicit invitation “I want you to save me”. If I were to pose a criticism of this scene, it would be that the “I’m alive! I’m alive!” of Max floundering into life, embraced by his wife, is perhaps a little much (not least because it’s an entirely graceless final shot), but it doesn’t dent the power of the final ten minutes of the film. Less relevant are criticisms of CPR proving ineffective following anaphylactic shock; they are as beside the point as attempting to plough a furrow of logic explaining the on-again, off-again, strawberry allergy.
Often in films, when a (male) partner strikes out on their own, embarking on some sort of hero’s journey, the audience is encouraged to dislike the spouse for their failure of the spouse to understand. Despite the appeal of Max’s state, of his disinterest in adopting the conformity of others, this doesn’t happen with Laura. She shows consistent perseverance and willingness to allow him to work things out. It would be entirely understandable for her to respond with anger to his not telling her he survived the crash (his “I thought I was dead” is about as much clarity as she will get). Even with his blunt disregard for their history (“I’m not scared to end out marriage”), she doesn’t give up, even though he pushes her to breaking point (“I’m going to survive this. I hope you make it”). There are moments where Max is over the top, although we can see his point (his brattish son given free range to run off playing computer games when he should be eating his dinner), but there is never a moment where we don’t sympathise with Laura. In particular, the scene where she gets the wrong end of the stick regarding the relationship between Max and Carla (though not without good reason) finds her defusing her frustration by showing understanding for Carla (“I’m very sorry about your little boy”). There is also a perception that Rossellini’s soulful delivery manages to overcome the sometimes slightly lumpy dialogue (“Max isn’t an angel. He’s a man. He’ll not survive up there”).
Carla: I want you to go home, Max. I want you to live again. You’re not a ghost any more.
Max: I can’t get back.
Carla: Yes you can.
Max: I don’t want to.
Fearless was roundly ignored at the 1994 Oscar ceremony, except in one category; Best Supporting Actress. And the nominee was… Rosie Perez, with a voice so grating it could cut glass. I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan for that reason, but in spite of this handicap she delivers a compelling performance here. You may need to prepare yourself going in, though, as her going on and on about poor little Bobo causes some wear-and-tear. Carla features in some of the best and weakest scenes in the movie. Hers is the character that has to get through to Max where others fail, so Perez has to be able to achieve this through more than just perforated eardrums. It turns out that the God-fearing woman actually needs reassurance in a very rational manner, which accords with her explosive reaction to Max’s suggestion that they have experienced the same epiphany (“Bullshit. I didn’t die in my head. My son died”). He has a religious experience, of a sort, but she just has aching guilt.
Her eruption at the flight attendant who told her to hold her baby during the flight (rather than securing him in his seat) is entirely understandable; she needs someone to vent at, and the scene in which she sniffs the head of a baby, unbeknownst to baby or parent, is quietly touching. Carla is central to the key dramatic scene in the picture too, which somehow manages not to suffer from using the most obviously rousing anthem (U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name). As she holds onto his toolbox as a surrogate child, Max proves to Carla in the most extreme way possible that there was no way she could have saved Bobo. Letting go of her guilt is instrumental to her decision to leave Max behind (she also leaves behind money-grabbing hubby Benicio Del Toro, in an early role), but it’s also the realisation, through Laura, of what Max is doing to himself. Carla can’t return to “normality” because it is no longer there for her (her statement to Max, “Things can’t go back to the way they were” is also a simple stark truth about her life generally), but Max’s challenge will be to take what he has learned and apply it to the safe boring life he has broken with (“You can’t save everybody, Max. You’ve got to try taking care of yourself”).
Not everything between the two of them works; some of Ygelsias’ dialogue is a little ripe (“The United States is finished, but you and me, we’re in peak condition” Max tells Carla), and the “Let’s buy presents for the dead” scene is frankly misjudged, the kind of cute idea that only happens (or only should happen) in an over-scripted Hollywood fantasy. But Bridges and Perez overcome any deficiencies. Despite her alarming vocal range.
The heightened world of Max requires heightened characters. The vampiric ambulance chaser lawyer Brillstein (Tom Hulce) and Turturro’s Dr Perlman border on caricatures, designed to make us flinch at morally and spiritually (respectively) bankrupt grotesques. Yet I don’t think either is out of place here, even if a few of the scenarios they’re asked to set foot in are. Brillstein’s unabashed revelling in the potential big bucks to be made from the disaster is a less dishonest version of the kind of media porn that occurs whenever such an event takes place. The mainstream media merely attempts to veil their excitement and round-the-clock jubilation beneath mock-reverence for the dead. Brillstein’s shameless enthusiasm becomes almost likable, with his repeated refrain of “I know, I’m terrible”.
His attempts to guide Max into misrepresenting his experiences and reactions to the crash (emphasising that he saw his partner’s body, suggesting that if Jeff – Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Jon de Lancie – was known to be in pain rather than having died instantly, there would be a bigger settlement), because “Pain and suffering are compensable”, actually have a an irrepressible honesty. Max knows where he stands with Brillstein and thus is able to deal with it; “I don’t want to tell any lies”. And Brillstein, in turn, is willing to work around his client’s moral qualms (after Max has screamed the car down, Brillstein responds “Next time just say no”). Even the car crash is an opportunity (“We could even improve our numbers”). Brillstein has no emotional attachments, so his seeking to make capital (a third of the settlement) isn’t objectionable in the way Manny’s behaviour is. And it means Max doesn’t have to navigate the unnerving practicality with which Nan (Deidre O’Connell) seeks compensation for the death of husband Jeff (such a petty-minded fellow, he changed Max’s booking to get cheaper seats and kept the difference).
Hulce brings the same nervous exuberance to Brillstein that was so memorable in Amadeus (he has largely retired from acting, but a role like this, even fairly minor, is a reminder of what an effective screen presence he can be). Again, the lawyer scenes aren’t immune from the occasional Yglesias overkill. Probably the worst line in the movie, designed to sound clever but is really just limp, comes as Max refuses to say sorry during a meeting at Brillstein’s office; “This is America in the ’90s. Nobody apologises anymore. They write a memoir”. I guess it’s a positive that this kind of thing stands out as bad, meaning that ninety percent of the script flows seamlessly.
Perlman: You think I’m a fraud, don’t you?
Max: Doctor, in the three months I flew with you from LA, I haven’t thought about you much at all.
Perlman is fascinatingly flawed, essayed by Turturro with the kind of awkward perfection that was the actor’s stock-in-trade at that point. It’s very noticeable that, while Brillstein is an irritation to Max at worst, a mosquito buzzing around him, Perlman is an unwanted intrusion; he represents an uncomprehending obstruction to Max living out the great experience to which he has been privy. It isn’t just Max; at various points both Carla and Laura also express their doubts about Perlman’s abilities. “I’m trying to help him is all” he tells Laura when she suggests he may be playing God (an accusation Carla also levels at Max, so maybe this is as much about whose paradigm wins out in the end), or matchmaker, with the lives of Carla and Max.
Perlman is frequently quite hopeless; unsubtle, clumsy, well-meaning but inexperienced. He is highly self-conscious about his own deficiencies, hence his line to Max about being a fraud. This not only clues us in that Perlman is polluted by ego in his work but also handily tells us how much time has passed. If Fearless is anything to go by, Yglesias and Weir are quite unconvinced by the methods of psychiatry in dealing with trauma survivors, or in just about anything come to that. Perlman’s actions are entirely hit and miss. He does want to help Max but he’s ill equipped, unable to really listen and lacking the tools to know and execute the best remedy. So, his intuition to put Max and Carla together is a positive one; both help each other in the long-term. But his ability to manage a survivor’s meeting is woeful (this is another scene where the playing is a little off; while Carla’s confrontation with Nancy is very powerful, it is prefaced by a boorish businessman talking about how he needs to get back to work – it’s a little too broad).
When Max slaps Perlman during the latter’s first attempt to tell him how he feels (“Max isn’t himself right now”) the rebuke feels entirely justified. Perlman has intruded, laying down rules for Max’s subjective experience when he has no right to do so. Even his diagnosis for putting Max and Carla together is off beam; “She won’t talk and he won’t admit the crash was bad”. Perlman’s discipline won’t allow him to entertain Max’s understanding of his experience as it inevitably evolves; he immediately wades in and negates its significance, attempting to reduce it to a measurable and quantifiable mean that all can agree upon (in a self-help group).
And because we are with Max, however much we can’t get in there with him (like Laura), we are sympathetic to his state; we know that Perlman must be missing something, There is an immediate scepticism about the character because he dismisses the validity of Max’s aberrant state. It has to be something wrong; but perhaps it’s entirely right for Max until it no longer serves its purpose. Even Laura, most tangential to the therapy side, identifies Perlman’s weaknesses straight away when she asks him to stand as a tree amid her dance class’s performance. Like Max, Perlman has set himself up as an arbiter for people’s problems and woes but he lacks the wisdom and balance to be effective. He is limited through allowing only one curative perspective, so he muddles through.
Weir has returned to the heightened or even antic state a number of times in his career. Most overtly, an encounter with an event beyond the readily explicable and everyday is found in Picnic at Hanging Rock and also its follow-up The Last Wave. While Picnic offers no explanation and its protagonists find no solace, more common is the lead’s attempts to control their environment despite seeing it from a mistaken perspective (Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, Linda Hunt’s Billy Kwan in Year of Living Dangerously). More recently, The Truman Show threw in the idea that the whole world is mad, with Ed Harris Christof as Weir’s clearest example yet of a man playing God with the lives of others. Fearless might be the most positive of Weir’s films to broach this theme. The chain of contacts surrounding Max all have an influence on bringing him back, even if they don’t realise their effect. Despite what he would like to think he isn’t alone and remote, in an intermediate and invulnerable state; it’s only when Carla leaves him that this really comes home to roost. Where Weir won’t be pinned down is in what this all means, and I’d suggest that’s why Fearless tends to strike a chord no matter who watches it. If one is disposed to, one can take away from it an agnostic reading, or even a purely materialist one.
My take is that Weir populates his picture with classical “heaven” imagery and symbolism for a reason (corridors of white light, shining signposts validating an altered state, biblical metaphors and language, the all-important strawberry): that Max’s experience is meaningful and not to be dismissed as something to move beyond, forget and leave behind (one might reduce it further; Max undergoes this in order to rekindle his dwindling marriage, to rediscover what is really important, but I think that’s rather too glib and limiting). Has he glimpsed into the beyond? And if so, once he has returned, what is he to do with that knowledge? Weir leaves this open, and that’s the picture’s masterstroke. It’s why Fearless will continue to resonate with future generations because, for all its affirmation of the importance of the here-and-now and those that surround us and love us, it recognises that we all need to keep asking the big questions.